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1 | Films on town planning from the archive</br>Frame from the film The City of Tomorrow, Berlin 1930

To better understand Paris - 1935

The nature of the city

Leonardo Ciacci

In the same years Marcel Poëte worked on making Pour mieux comprendre Paris, for the '3 minutes to...' series produced by Atlantic Film in the 1930s, publication of his most important book, Un vie de cité. Paris de sa naissance à nous jours, (four volumes dedicated to the history of that city, written between 1924 and 1931), was almost complete. In 1929 he had also published Introduction à l'Urbanisme. L'évolution des villes. In that essay, the city is seen as a 'living organism' and its history treated as the progressive, continuing evolution of an initial settlement which has been modified, though without the signs of its history and origins being erased. 



To better understand Paris (1935)

Directed by Hetienne de Lallier
Screenplay by Marcel Poëte
Technical information: B/w, 35mm film with soundtrack commentary, Length 5' 18"
Produced by Atlantic Film
The film is kept by Atlantic Film where has been recently rediscovered thanks to archive work conducted by Donatella Calabi in preparation for her "Parigi anni venti. Marcel Poëte e le origini della storia urbana", Marsilio, Venezia 1997.

Watch the film online | Complete version: 
• To better understand Paris




Poëte regarded this idea, also shared by other writers of that period, as being strong enough to deserve being transformed into a method, into an interpretative orientation for analysing the city, with obvious practical consequences for town planning. Furthermore, Poëte considered popularisation of the city's history and its documents as a 'a service aimed at a vast audience'. Such pedagogical experiementation put his commitment on a par with that of another great promoter of citizen participation in the active transformation of the city: the Scotsman, Patrick Geddes. In 1895, Geddes had built the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh, intended for the public display of historical and analytical documents, data and images of the city; which in 1910 then became a travelling exhibition. 

It is therefore no surpise that Poëte took up the challenge of cinema, to create a representation of the place he best knew in the world, using a tool that would put him in direct contact with an otherwise unimaginable number of spectators. The opportunity offered him a short film lasting only a few minutes.
Pour mieux comprendre Paris begins with daily scenes of Parisian life, shot from the street, before the observation point is moved up, to give an overall view of the city centre. 'In order to understand it [Paris] we have to relate to its layout'. This is how the first of the method prescriptions proposed by Poëte for studying the city is introduced. In this case, too, animation design is used, following the same technique as that applied in Die Städt von Morgen. Here, cinematographic artifice is perfectly overlaid at the direction of the student of the city. Examination of the layouts of different capital cities becomes a comparison of figures, almost as if they were people. Each one corresponds to a different history, which brings to mind unique, unrepeatable episodes, still indelibly written in the form of its parts, its streets and its buildings. Recognition of the earliest settlements in the new signs of subsequent transformations attributes the nature of 'living organism' to the city, which constantly evolves, provided nothing intervenes to interrupt its vitality, its life. 'Here is Paris last century, 200, 300, 400, 600 years ago. Here, finally, is Paris 1000 years ago. The small primitive city remained limited to the Ile de la Cité for another 1000 years' - another quotation from Introduction a l'urbanisme, translated into the simplified language of cinema, with which to communicate the precise sense of the city's origins to the spectator. Its place of foundation, the island in the middle of the river, is shown, and its permanence in the modern layout pointed out, along with its original reason. And, finally, the closure, which also becomes a very fast backward look at what had taken the spectator back in time and space a few frames earlier, and which now returns him to the present of his city. 'This is a journey that anyone can make any day, if he learns to recognise the signs of the periods that have produced the buildings in which he lives or comes across on his daily travels, during the uninterrupted life of his city. 'The image of past centuries rises in the city of today'.


Marcel Poëte and his director prove themselves great communicators. In the duration of a cine-news clip, they recount a city, a history, a theory, and actively take part in a disciplinary controversy, that of the functional modernisation of the industrial age city which, from Paris, inspired European town planners in those years. The film must have met with a certain success, given that the following year Poëte prepared a new, detailed screenplay, Paris au files des heures, for a documentary (never made) to be presented at the Brussels exposition of 1935.